Bullock asks public to wear masks, distance as cases increase statewide

Updated Oct. 1 with the school information from DPHHS.

Gov. Steve Bullock again asked Montanans to take COVID-19 seriously and follow the health recommendations of wearing masks and distancing to slow the spread across the state during a Sept. 30 press conference.

He said at this time he wouldn’t implement any stricter restrictions and that there were no set metrics for what would cause a return to Phase 1, but that officials were monitoring the increase in cases and take recommendations from health professionals.

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Bullock said that six counties represent 65 percent of all the new reported cases, including Cascade County, along with Yellowstone, Flathead, Missoula, Gallatin and Roosevelt counties.

As of Sept. 30, Cascade County 729 total cases, of which 290 are active. The county added zero new cases on Sept. 30 after significant increases over the the last week. On Sept. 22, the county had 603 cases. Some new cases have been associated with the outbreak at the Cascade County Adult Detention Center and some have been associated with Great Falls Public Schools. According to state data, updated Sept. 30 with cases reported through Sept. 25, there have been 47 cases associated with schools in Cascade County and of those, 44 have been GFPS students or staff.

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Cascade County City-County Health told The Electric on Wednesday that the county is not implementing any stricter restrictions at this time.

Bullock said that statewide there have been clusters in congregate settings, a cluster at Montana State University and continued community spread.

Bullock said that many Montanans are taking COVID-19 seriously but some are asking as if the virus no longer exists.

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He said that the state had flattened the curve in the spring, but now the increase in cases is straining public health and there’s concern of that continued strain on resources and hospital capacity going into the fall and flu season.

Benefis Health System officials said that there are currently 37 people in their hospital with COVID and seven of those are in the ICU. The hospital officials said they were at 115 percent of capacity. Some of those patients are coming from other areas of the state that were over capacity, including Billings.

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The Benefis officials sent the information via text to a state medical official during the press conference since their video link didn’t work properly.

Bullock said the state has increased testing capacity and running about 1,000 tests daily at the state lab and the contracted lab is running tests seven days a week. He said that over the last four weeks, those labs have conducted 80,000 tests with the priority on symptomatic people, close contacts and those in congregate settings.

“The concerning trend in cases right now should cause us all some alarm,” Bullock said. “We need to get this virus under control.”

Shelly Harkins, chief medical officer of the St. Peter’s Health Regional Medical Center, said having COVID patients in hospitals puts a strain on medical resources, which affects all other patients.

“We can change our course,” if everyone doubles down on the precautions, Harkins said. “The outcome on our community will have little to do with the virus and everything to do with our behavior.”